Native Wildflower Seed Production in Florida
By Jeff Norcini
University of Florida/IFAS
The Florida wildflower industry is a young but growing industry. There is good to excellent profit potential over the long term and broad-based public/private support and demand for wildflowers and this type of seed. As with any new business, it could take up to five years to become profitable. This is dependent on whether you're diversifying an existing farm operation or a landowner starting from scratch. Since the industry is new to Florida, there is much to be learned about the most efficient methods of production and marketing.
Growers in Florida are producing seed of native herbaceous annual and perennial wildflowers. Not only are these wildflowers native, but they are derived from naturally occurring populations in Florida. Therefore, they are already adapted to Florida's conditions in meadows, roadsides, natural areas and other non-cultivated sites.
Why is that important? Wildflowers that are native to Florida -- but are derived from other parts of the country -- do not necessarily perform well under Florida's environmental conditions, especially in non-cultivated sites like those mentioned above. The same applies to many of the showy cultivars of native wildflowers. Cultivated varieties of wildflowers, like Indian Summer Black-Eyed Susan, are the result of extensive selection and testing. However, cultivated varieties are typically introduced into the trade based on their performance under garden conditions, not the harsher conditions of Florida's roadsides and meadows.
Florida's wildflower seed producers are currently focusing on spring and summer flowering species including our state wildflower, Coreopsis (tickseed). There are 13 species of Coreopsis in Florida, four of which are in production.
Lanceleaf Tickseed (Coreopsis lanceolata) and Goldenmane Tickseed (Coreopsis basalis) flower in the spring. Leavenworth's Tickseed (Coreopsis leavenworthii) flowers from the spring to fall in northern Florida but all year round in southern Florida.
Florida Tickseed (Coreopsis floridiana), which flowers in the fall, is expected to be available for sale in 2006. The latter two species are only found in Florida.
Other species include the popular Drummond's Phlox (Phlox drummondii), which carpets our roadsides in the spring with mainly pink and purple flowers, Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella), which thrives in dry sandy soils, and the ever popular Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).
Growers are beginning to increase seed of fall flowering species, such as Blazing Star (Liatris spp.). Limited quantities of these wildflowers should be available for sale by 2006.
Seed in Florida is being produced in two types of cropping systems. Some growers are producing crops in a traditional field planting. Most wildflowers can be grown this way.
The one known exception is Drummond's Phlox, which should be grown in a landscape fabric production system. In this system, wildflowers are grown in narrow rows between parallel strips of woven landscape fabric to minimize weed problems and facilitate harvesting. Rows are typically one to three inches wide, although some growers use wider rows. Ripe seed falls to the fabric where it is harvested by vacuum. Since the harvest mostly consists of mature seed, the cleaning process is simpler and less costly than if a crop is harvested by combining as in field plantings. Yields tend to be greater with the landscape fabric system. Many producers are utilizing this system for Phlox as well as for species that flower for several months.
Facilities and Equipment -- Needs and Costs
Wildflower seed production is ideal for those that already produce crops -- from agronomic crops to vegetable crops to ornamental crops. In many cases, existing equipment and facilities can be adapted for wildflower seed production.
Generally, about 10 acres is needed for field production because the cost for outsourcing combine harvesting is relatively high for fewer acres. For the landscape fabric system, at least one acre is needed. However, when first starting out, experiment with one to three species on about 1/4 to 1/2 acre in a landscape fabric system. Woven landscape fabric plus landscape staples will cost at least $2,100 to $2,200 per acre. Fabric costs have doubled the last couple of years because its price is tied to oil prices.
Avoid planting in land where nutsedge (Cyperus spp.), green briar (Smilax spp.), or brambles (Rubus spp.) are common. These plants will interfere with crop production and can be very difficult to eradicate. Areas with dense turf or other vegetation are probably not suitable for production either. Even though the existing vegetation can be killed, there is likely a large weed seed bank in the soil that could germinate and interfere with crop growth.
Seed or Transplants
As of spring 2005, most seed cost about $50 to $100 per pound and is the only practical option for a field planting. Fields can be planted with a no-till seed drill. A much less expensive option is a manually operated broadcast spreader. It will take about 45-60 minutes to sow seed on one acre.
For the landscape fabric system, purchasing transplants (approximately $800 to $2,100 per 1/4 acre, depending on plant spacing) is much more expensive and time consuming. However, a pre-emergence herbicide can be applied within a few days after transplanting to prevent weed growth while the wildflowers become established. The cost for herbicide on a per-acre basis will be very low since it is only being applied to narrow rows. If seed is used, plots must be hand weeded since there are no herbicides that can be applied until seedlings are well established. Hand weeding may be necessary for one to several months and could be very labor intensive. The wider the space between strips of fabric, the greater the cost of hand weeding.
Seed or transplants of Florida ecotypes of native wildflowers can be purchased from the Wildflower Seed and Plant Growers Association, Inc., commonly known as the Florida Wildflower Seed Co-op. Wherever transplants or seed is purchased, make sure that the original source was from a naturally occurring population in Florida. Obtain documentation from the seller stating that the seed or transplants have been certified as originating in Florida. This documentation will be needed when it is time to certify your seed (see "Seed Testing and Certification"). The Florida Wildflower Seed Co-op sells seed that is certified as such. It is commonly referred to as "Source Identified" or "Yellow Tag" seed. This is a critical issue because certified seed commands a higher price.
Adequate moisture is critical during flowering and while the seed are maturing. Those growing field crops will need to rely on rain since applying supplemental irrigation is cost prohibitive. However, those using the landscape fabric system can economically irrigate their crops. A drip system (approximately $300 per acre) is often used. A simpler, less-costly irrigation system (approximately $100) is a set of risers/sprinkler heads attached to old tire rims, concrete blocks, etc., with hose end fittings that allow a garden hose to be attached. Whichever system is used, include a fertilizer injector ($200 and up) if rows are less than three inches wide. Do not drill a new well solely for seed production. A new well will take too many years to recover costs.
A non-selective translocated herbicide like glyphosate will be needed for site preparation and spot weed control. Growers also need herbicides that selectively kill grasses that might be interfering with crop growth. Grass herbicides can be expensive so pre-emergence herbicides should be used to inhibit growth of grass as well as broadleaf weeds. A backpack sprayer will cost $150 and up. Since weeds will be the major pest problem, only one sprayer should be necessary. Do not use an herbicide sprayer to spray any other type of pesticide. A wick applicator for directed applications of non-selective herbicides like glyphosate costs about $20 and up. Fertilization at 100-200 pounds of nitrogen per acre can increase yields. For the landscape fabric system, a granular controlled release fertilizer can be used for rows over three inches wide. Apply a water-soluble fertilizer through the injection system for rows less than 3 inches wide.
Combine harvesting of field plots is about $50 per acre, but the minimum charge is typically $500. A leaf vacuum for harvesting seed off landscape fabric can cost as little as $110. Vacuums designed to be pulled or mounted on an ATV or garden tractor will cost several hundred dollars.
A covered facility as simple as a garage floor is needed for drying seed. A fan will facilitate drying. Alternatively, a drying bin can be constructed for less than $250. The bin is constructed of plywood with a porous false bottom through which warm air is blown. The warm air can be supplied by an old furnace fan. The warm air needs to be less than 100 degrees F.
For seed cleaning, minimize costs while experimenting with seed production by working with an established seed producer that has seed cleaning equipment. The smallest air-screen cleaner, the work horse of seed cleaning, is about $5,000, plus the costs of screens (approximately $35 each). The cost for outsourcing seed cleaning varies. Some will charge about $1 to $2 per pound of seed after it has been cleaned. Others will charge by the hour. Alternatively, travel to a grower with seed cleaning equipment and use it on-site or assist the grower in cleaning your seed. Seed should be more than 90 percent pure, contain less than 1 percent weed seed, and no seed of any species listed as noxious by the state or federal government. And finally, experiment with different seed harvesting, drying, or cleaning methods. Equipment designed specifically for wildflower seed production is very limited.
Another Harvesting Option
A low-cost option is to harvest a naturally occurring stand of wildflowers. The stand should be relatively pure. This would be ideal for those in the bahia grass seed business who are considering diversifying when a combine, seed drying and seed cleaning facility is already available. For example, in northern Florida there are many acres of Goldenmane Tickseed growing in fields used for hay or other crops. For a reasonable fee, landowners are usually amenable to having someone harvest the seed.
Seed Testing and Certification
Seed must be tested prior to sale. Purity and germination testing costs about $75 for each wildflower seed crop that will be sold. Make sure that viability testing is included in the germination test. It is best if the viability test is run separately. A viability test is sometimes accepted in lieu of a germination test because of the nature of the wildflower seed being produced here in Florida. If seed is to be sold, it should be certified as being "Source Identified" by the Southern Seed Certification Association, a joint agency of Florida and Alabama. Certification currently costs $250 per year, regardless of the number of species that were harvested, plus $0.10 per pound of seed to be sold.
Seed producers can join the Florida Wildflower Seed Co-op, a for-profit new generation co-op. Currently, it is only $100 to join as a non-voting Associate Grower. Full membership, which includes voting rights plus shares in the co-op, currently costs $500. Minimum production standards must be met in order to apply for full membership.
Markets for Native Wildflower Seed
Existing and potential buyers are those in Florida and in the coastal plains region of the lower south who oversee the purchase of seed and plant materials for:
- -- Roadsides
- -- Restoring and enhancing federal and state forests and water management districts
- -- Phosphate mine reclamation
Other buyers include those involved in creating or enhancing natural areas:
- -- City, county and state parks
- -- Commercial and residential developments
- -- Owners of large tracts of land
Related Brochures and Publications
- Download the Florida Wildflower Cooperative Brochure (PDF)
- Download the Florida Wildflower Coloring Book (PDF)
Related Video Productions
Links to Related Web Sites
- Visit the Wildflower Seed and Plant Growers Association Web Site
- Visit the Florida Wildflower Foundation Web Site
- Visit the Florida Wildflower Advisory Council Web Site
- Visit the Florida Wildflower Tag Web Site
- Visit the Florida State Beekeepers Association Web Site